Years ago, several cats with strange facial features and special needs appeared on social media. Since they showed a couple of similarities to Down syndrome, cat owners wanted to know one thing – is feline Down syndrome a real thing? Here’s the truth.
The Features of Cats with Suspected Down Syndrome
Before we get to the answer, let’s have a look at some of the signs that can convince owners that their pet might have Down syndrome.
- Small size.
- An abnormally broad nose or muzzle.
- Upturned eyes.
- Wide-set eyes.
- Ears that are too small or abnormally shaped.
- Underdeveloped muscle tone.
- Struggling to walk, eat, or use the bathroom.
- A degree of deafness or blindness.
- Heart problems.
Feline Down Syndrome Isn’t Real
To understand why cats cannot have Down syndrome in the same way that humans do, we need to understand the cause of this condition in people. Normally, a baby is born with 46 chromosomes. Unfortunately, some infants inherit an extra copy of a chromosome called chromosome 21. This gives them Down syndrome.
Cats only have 19 chromosomes, far fewer than humans. This makes it impossible for them to inherit an extra chromosome 21. Ergo, they cannot develop true Down Syndrome.
Alternative Explanations for Feline Down Syndrome
This chromosomal disorder doesn’t exist in cats. But that cannot hide the fact that there are cats out there with symptoms that are physically and neurologically similar to Down syndrome. So, what’s going on? If this is not feline Down syndrome, then what is it?
Thus far, nothing can explain with certainty why some cats develop these features. However, experts agree that feline cases that mimic Down syndrome probably result from a severe physical trauma the kitten suffered early in life or that something went wrong while the kitten was still in the womb.
1. Feline panleukopenia
Before the advent of effective vaccines, feline panleukopenia was the number one killer of cats. This highly infectious disease is also known as cat distemper or cat parvo. Thankfully, vaccines have made this disease uncommon in modern times. However, that doesn’t mean that cats no longer get it.
Kittens are hit especially hard. Those already born can suffer damage to their eyes and brain. When a pregnant cat becomes infected, the virus attacks the brains of the unborn kittens and damages the neurological regions that regulate movement. They are born with a condition called feline cerebellar ataxia that causes them to walk abnormally and suffer strong tremors.
2. Cerebellar hypoplasia
This developmental condition occurs when the cerebellum of the brain doesn’t develop fully or it develops abnormally. The good news is that a cat with this condition can live a life that is full and free of pain. But it can be tough to watch their shaky walks and slow learning. The main cause of cerebellar hypoplasia is feline parvo but it can also result from brain trauma or when kittens are born to a severely malnourished mother.
3. A Toxic Pregnancy
It’s also very plausible that kittens can develop problems in the womb when their mother is exposed to toxins. The latter is known for causing neurological problems and congenital malformations in fetuses, both of which are often seen in cats with “Down syndrome.”
Learn more about the top 10 household poisons that cats are exposed to.
My Cat Shows Down Syndrome Symptoms, Now What?
Schedule a Vet Appointment
Considering that several things could be responsible for your pet’s condition, you need an expert opinion. A vet will thoroughly examine your cat and hopefully, give you a diagnosis. Even if they cannot pinpoint the cause behind your cat’s “Down syndrome,” they can definitely offer treatment, therapies, and advice.
Prepare for an Indoors Cat
A cat with challenges similar to Down syndrome cannot be left outside, or even be allowed to enjoy the outdoors without supervision. The latter is crucial to ensure that they stay safe from other animals, traffic, and other deadly mishaps. These cats are not nimble and this makes them extremely vulnerable. The safest way for them to live a good, rich existence is to have a happy life indoors with the occasional supervised trip outside.
Make Your Home a Safe Place
Educate small children to be gentle with the cat. Consider danger areas and cat-proof them, including zones like stairs, slamming doors, pools, ponds, full tubs, and open windows.
Track Their Health
If you’re a dedicated pet parent, get a special notebook. Every day, note their progress, food intake, and behaviors. If your pet has a problem or treatment, note that as well. This will create a record of your cat’s health that can help you to spot, very quickly, when something isn’t right with your pet in the future. Unfortunately, these cats are prone to developing additional medical problems and the sooner you catch them, the better.
Give Lots of Love
Some of these cats need help with basic things like eating or cleaning their fur. Although they might be “slow” they are fully aware and appreciative of the attention you give them, so don’t be shy. These amazing cats deserve all the love and pampering they can get!
Q: Can cats develop autism?
Owners have noticed that some cats do display behavioral characteristics that are similar to people with autism. However, there is no scientific basis or evidence that concretely proves that autistic cats are real.
Q: Is it cruel to keep my special needs cat indoors all the time?
No, even normal cats can lead a completely happy life indoors. The only caveat, for both normal and special needs cats, is that their owner must make the effort to create a satisfying environment for them inside the home.
Q: My cat has cerebellar hypoplasia. How do I litter train her?
Lots of patience and gentle encouragement go a long way. Never lose your temper, as frustrating as cat “accidents” can be. A good tip is to get an extra large litter box that is very easy for your cat to enter and get out of.
Q: Can cats with cerebellar hypoplasia live happy lives?
Yes, they can! They require a little extra care, but when owners meet the special needs of these cats, they can live a surprisingly satisfying and happy life. Cerebellar hypoplasia is also not a painful condition, despite the physical challenges it presents.
Q: Will my cat’s cerebellar hypoplasia get worse as he grows older?
According to some vets, it might appear at times that your cat’s cerebellar hypoplasia is getting worse, but in reality, it cannot get better or worse. Very often, when your pet is seemingly getting sicker from cerebellar hypoplasia, it might actually be a related complication or a new health problem that must be checked out by a vet.
Q: What is the life expectancy of my cat with cerebellar hypoplasia?
Incredibly, a cat with cerebellar hypoplasia has the same normal lifespan as a cat without the condition. Most of these cats learn to live with their disabilities and navigate the world in their own unique way.